The productive ritual of soap-opera watching…

The casual and repetitive broadcasting of TV series is such a commonplace occurrence across Britain’s screens. Every morning of the week you can watch repeats of Friends, Frasier, One Tree Hill and 90210. Every evening you can catch it all again. And you saw it all before last year, and a couple of months before that, and probably when it first aired too. Are those episodes still as captivating as they first were? No – and that’s what is so perfect about viewing replays; it’s all so warm and familiar and predictable, nothing new to get your teeth into; nothing to focus too much of your time and attention on. All so lovely and comfortingly boring.

So at 8am, while most of us are slouching over our kitchen counters eating a lukewarm piece of toast while not quite tasting it, texting someone and listening to the familiar sounds of Rachel & Ross making up (again) from the TV, all those politicians we hate are on their way to Parliament to try and make some changes.

They’re trying to do something new, trying to make a difference. (Yes some of them are primarily interested in trying to keep their seats in power for personal gain, but we’ll assume that the main reason people go into politics is because they aren’t satisfied with the current running of their country and have a vision.)

We all complain about our government (of course we can’t all agree on everything!) but none of us do anything about it. We try to belittle and correct them from afar (we’ve all been guilty of it at some point) and then forget and get on with our lives. The majority of us withdraw quietly; it’s easier.

So what we’re seeing here is complacency: a national unwillingness to try to cooperate, and this is due to passivity. This passivity derives from an individual anxiety many of us hold about our place in society, which occurs when we are made aware of different people and different approaches. These differences (the activist who ‘shouts’, and the ‘over achieving’ community busy body, the ‘do-gooders’ in social services and the rich elite who ‘dictate’ our cultural tastes) are intimidating.

Many people interpret these expressions of difference as a matter of inferiority and superiority; “I’m a better person than you because I recycle and promote it”.  This is off-putting to say the least and the reaction to our interpretations is to not want to be involved. Ergo passivity.

Now that rant, and before it the seemingly random reference to repeat TV episodes, is over I’d just like to mention that I’m currently making artwork based on rousing people from passivity and getting them to care and to cooperate within a community. This is where TV comes in.

The society from which we withdraw when faced with those unlike ourselves, can be supplemented by all those faces we know so well; Rachel & Ross, Peyton & Lucas, the noopsies from Orange County, and Will & Grace. They are so reliable, so familiar. Fall asleep watching the same season of The O.C every night; everyone always does what you think they’ll to do because you’ve seen them do it before. They always conform to your expectations. Nothing ever changes; Repetition is so much easier than evolution. So controlled.

This is voluntary boredom. The most unproductive habit one can possibly sink into.

 This voluntary boredom is quite clearly extremely detrimental to personal and community progress. What worse a way to spend your precious free time than re-watching old shows when you could be meeting new people and trying to understand their viewpoint, reading new things, going to new places. What’s the point in even having a job if you’re going to go home and spend your money on a TV license in order to live someone else’s utterly predictable life.

BUT… the soap opera is here!! The saving grace for those of us who like to watch TV (probably all of us) and need a wee break from trying to be good (all of us). Most ‘entertainment’ TV is a disadvantage to an evolving community, but asking people to eliminate every unproductive habit they have in favour of being a better human is unrealistic; there’s got to be some downtime. Otherwise the rigid obedience to bettering ourselves will become counterproductive.

So, soap operas.

Soap operas are brilliant; they’re brand new every weekday, they continue and continue, they don’t come out on box set, they’re short, the characters are slightly more sustainably cooperative people because they have to exist for years and years in these fictional towns (Ray Meagher who plays Alf from Home & Away for example must have learnt some tips about cooperation from acting out the highs and lows of Summer Bay life for the past 25 years), and the episodes usually require such little emotional investment the first time around that you never want to see a repeat. For 20 minutes a day you can allow yourself to escape.

Cooperation requires a lot of effort and constant self-review; ‘how am I speaking? how am I listening? am I learning?’ It requires a slight surrender of self-indulgence, and certainly of ignorance. But humans are sensual, lazy, imaginative, dreamy and never quite satisfied, and cooperation does not allow for these traits; but the soap opera does. Allowing ourselves these daily retreats into fiction is a ritual* we can use to cooperative benefit; giving us space to lower the pressure on ourselves to be more responsible, cooperative human beings every hour of every day.

We should all be trying to be someone, to be better. But for a few precious moments each afternoon we can settle down with our favoured soap opera and each vicariously indulge the person we shouldn’t, but want to be.



*A ritual is behaviour which one has practiced for a bit, stopped and assessed, and reinstated with meaning as a habit.

Article & Illustrations by Philly Hunt


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